Adversity strengthens swimmer Hehn’s resolve

Ben Goessling

Keri Hehn was shocked.

During swimming practice at Nebraska on Oct. 1, 2000, Hehn found out that her career would never be the same. She would never again work with the people who had coached her for the past year and a half.

Major NCAA violations in the Cornhuskers women’s swimming program forced four of the team’s five coaches to resign or retire, and prohibited them from having any contact with the team.

The swimming program paid the expenses of six student-athletes to attend a competition, which was not permissible under NCAA bylaws.

By the end of the season, almost all of the team’s athletes transferred to other schools.

Hehn followed suit, joining Minnesota’s squad prior to this season.

“I had five Division I schools that I was looking at coming out of high school,” Hehn said. “I thought, ‘Why did the school I pick have to be the one that was going to have its program cut?’

“But over the summer, I realized that maybe Nebraska would only take me so far, and that Minnesota could take me the rest of the way.”

Hehn started looking for a new school after the Big 12 Championships in Feb. 2001. During a two-month span, she visited Minnesota, Texas, Florida, Arizona and Arizona State.

But on her visit to Minnesota, she knew she had found a match.

“When you’re visiting a school, you can tell who’s being fake,” Hehn said. “You can tell who’s happy and who’s not by looking at the girls. But at Minnesota, I just knew.”

This season, Hehn is a provisional qualifier for her second straight NCAA Championship meet. She ranks 19th nationally in the 200-yard breaststroke, and is ranked 21st in the 100-yard breaststroke.

Additionally, she has become one of the team’s leaders, something head coach Jean Freeman said is invaluable to her young program.

“Keri has really taken on a leadership role in and out of the pool,” Freeman said. “We’ve recruited a really good group of breaststrokers for next year, and to have them train with Keri in her senior year will bring them along that much quicker. When she does graduate, she’ll know that she’s really helped our program for the next few years.”

Hehn said coming to Minnesota was somewhat of a bittersweet experience at first, largely because of the ties she had to break with Nebraska and her friends there.

“When you’re a freshman, you instantly bond (with the other freshmen), so those were the hardest ties to break,” she said. “For the first month I was here, I felt like I was just waiting to go home.”

Hehn will compete at her first Big Ten Championship meet from Feb. 21-23, and will be one of the favorites in the 100 and 200-yard breaststroke. She ranks fourth in the conference in the 100-yard breaststroke, and third in the 200-yard breaststroke.

From a swimming standpoint, Hehn said, the move has been a positive one, largely because it has allowed her to escape the adversity at Nebraska. She has significantly improved on her personal bests in both events, and has developed a reputation as one of the best breaststrokers in the country.

Hehn, a nursing major, said she is contemplating the possibility of entering medical school, but that will depend on how well she scores on the MCAT test.

While the past year has provided Hehn with a great deal of adversity, she said she has come away from her experiences a much stronger person.

“It was something I didn’t want to go through, but that’s how life is,” Hehn said. “I’ve met a lot of great people, and I’ve been able to swim in a much faster conference. When it was happening last spring, I didn’t think anything positive could come out of it, and nothing negative has. I definitely think I made the right decision.”

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]